Irend didn’t arrive before dinner was brought in and Deseem tried to squash his disappointment. It would have been nice to share a meal with someone, something he hadn’t really been able to do since his sister had wed. He missed having a conversation over a meal, it just seemed to make the food taste better.
Traveling and boredom mixed with the anxiety of being away from the rooms he was comfortable and used to left him tired and strained at night. He knew he was retiring early while they traveled but beyond his practice and lessons which were seldom during this trip, he had nothing to do to occupy his mind. Once dinner was cleared away the biggest thing for him to consider was to wait to see if his brother would arrive or simply prepare for sleep.
The choice was made for him. As the dinner dishes were removed and the small collapsible table with it, the servants bustled to bring in tall poles with a thin gauzy fabric stretched between them. The poles were secured and his tent suddenly was discreetly screened from entrance. It made his heart leap a little, it meant company and that could only mean his brother.
Deseem sat silent as his brother finally slipped into his tent. He wasn’t supposed to speak first, that had been a difficult lesson to master, and he sat hoping his brother planned to stay.
“Leave us.” Irend ordered of the servants and they bowed and filed out. They trusted to the fragile, easily damaged fabric to secure Deseem’s untouched state. A normal level of touch and the threads would snap or tangle and contact would be shown. It was a risk only allowed for a close family member and even a brother was only trusted within reason.
“Brother.” Irend greeted.
Deseem bowed deeply.
“None of that, our time is short.” He moved and sat down as close to the fabric as he could. “How are you?”
The question made Deseem pause and think. No one had actually asked him that since his sister wed. “I’m well. I heard you married.”
Irend nodded. “She is a good wife. I’ve barely seen her, so long do I linger here with the fighting.”
He dared to glance up and was surprised by the growing bruise on his brother’s face. “What’s happened?”
“Nothing.” He shook his head. “Our Lord Father, he is not pleased the woman captive is missing her mask pendent. I swore to him with sacred vows that she was not wearing one when we caught her but he didn’t believe me. He accuses our Uncle of stealing his prize. The man is growing more and more irrational.”
“I never hear word.”
“The war goes against us yet he throws more lives to it as if he can wash defeat away with enough blood.” Irend squared his shoulders and drew a long slow breath. “Enough of this, it would bore you to hear. You know the reason you’ve been removed from your cloister to travel with our Lord Father?”
He’d be a fool not to. “He seeks a husband.”
“Yes. After what happened with our sister, many who might consider Bentan have been slow to agree. He hopes that by showing your pretty amber eyes and your meek manner around he’ll entice more suitors.”
“What?” The compliment to his manners and eyes went unheard and Deseem blinked and tried to gather his thoughts. “What about our sister?”
“You have not been told?”
He shook his head. “I’ve heard not a word since she wed.”
Irend sat back and the strength melted from his shoulders. “She had a child, a daughter. Deseem, two months ago they found her babe dead, smothered by her own hand and when the sought her out they found her hanging by her neck from the post of her bed, one of her scarves around her neck. I’m sorry, I thought you would have been told.”
The news fell upon him like a horrible, crushing weight. He felt tears well up into his eyes in response to a pain so deep he couldn’t really feel it and his breath hissed in short gasps from his lungs.
“Deseem… Brother… stop… compose yourself… stop it…we haven’t enough time for you to mourn now. I will be gone soon enough and you’ll be alone and can grieve her death in private.”
A woman’s scream broke across quiet camp and Deseem nearly jumped from his skin. It was a cruel sound and made worse with the memory if his sister’s screams so fresh in his mind. “What’s that?”
Irend frowned and ducked his head to hide the unpleasant look in his eyes. “Father wished to question the captives himself. He is angry with how the war goes. Try not to listen too closely and remember, they are enemies and would happily murder us without a second thought to it.”
Deseem nodded because he knew better than to disagree with a man but he wanted to ask his brother if that made it any easier to sleep at night, believing that it was justified.
“You will not become a priest, littlest brother.”
“It is the will of God.”
“I can not stay, I can not protect you. I failed with our sister and I am just as powerless to shelter you.”
“But I want you to remember I am always thinking of you.” He whistled softly and the tent flap opened. “This is one of my men. He’s been be-spelled by a healer, while intact, he is magically as any eunuch. I’ve gained permission to give him to you, he will have restrictions. He is unable to be alone with you, unable to attend your bed or bath but he will prevent as much harm to you as he can. He has sworn loyalty first to me and second to you and my orders to him are to obey you.” Irend glanced up to the hulking fellow, a battled hardened warrior now with his dark hair shaved off and a filigree, bespelled band around his testicles. What the man was doing was a huge risk and an even larger sacrifice but it was necessary. “This will be the last time we speak brother.”
“Surely you’ll attend my wedding?”
Irend smiled softly. “If God wills it so. My oath is to Bastion first and I must see to the well being of the kingdom above all.” He stood and the smile grew sad. “You would have grown into being a fine man and a powerful priest, brother, it makes my heart ache to know you shall never be either.” He glanced into his man’s dark eyes and saw the understanding there.
“Are you leaving?” He felt a desperate need to keep his brother with him, suddenly frightened he really never would see him again.
“I ride back to Uncle tonight. Know that I love you brother.”
Before he could think of an answer, his brother was gone. He wanted to throw himself on his bed and weep for his sister, for his own solitude, for the loss of both his siblings. He wanted to throw something in impotent rage at knowing without a bit of doubt that he was to be Bentan and become a bride, that even if by some chance he was to see his brother again he would be sister to him. It all churned together in his stomach but nothing reached the surface and he sat there unmoving as his servants returned and removed the screening fabric and eyed their new arrival with suspicion.
He was still sitting there, hours later when the sounds of pain and tortured finally eased and his servants prompted him to sleep. There was nothing in him to protest and he let them unbraid his hair, wash his limbs and feet and dress him for sleep. Even as they extinguished the lamps he lay awake with his eyes open, feeling trapped and powerless, haunted by the memory and guilt of his sister’s own screams.
The camp had grown quiet and dark and Deseem was still awake. Sleep refused to take him and he lay there with his eyes open in the dark. Before he was to be Bentan he would have prayed but now he didn’t believe anyone would hear his prayers let alone consider answering them. Before, just the meditation of prayer would have soothed him but even that seemed false and distant.
There was too much to feel to really feel anything. Learning of Marla’s suicide had struck him like a physical blow but now, when he was alone and able to grieve and mourn, no emotion was willing to surface. He just felt guilt, disgusting, weighty guilt and having stood by and let them torture her. The Marla he’d known would never have taken her own life before her mind had been burned and her body sold in marriage and he’d allowed that to happen to her.
It just reminded him of how powerless he was. He was going to be bartered off, not the priesthood for favor from God but to some noble for far more earthly favor. He’d have no more say over it than Marla would and in a years time his eyes would be as sad and knowing as the Bentan’s he’d met. It made him want to scream with rage and shatter every breakable in his tent, to claw at his face and rip out his hair but instead he just lay there, unmoving, struggling to hold panic at bay. Worse, if his father was going to question the prisoners, he wouldn’t even have the distraction of travel to break up his thoughts, he’d be stuck in his tent for days until the captives broke or died, listening to them scream and feeling like he should be screaming with them.
In the darkness he suddenly hated his father. Not just the blind, cold indifference or the trained empty loyalty or even the shivering fear he often felt when he saw his father. He felt none of that now, just cold, deep, freezing hatred. It was his father’s fault that Marla had been cleansed in the old ways and had her mind shredded. It was his father that had picked her husband, a man that surely had not been kind to her to make her take her own life to escape. It was his father that drove his brother to fight in an endless war. Worse, it was his father that would make him into being Bentan, forced to give up his very gender and live the rest of his life as a woman. The source of all his misery was his father and he felt as helpless against the man as a fly did against a giant.
For a wild moment he considered following his sister’s example. It seemed the only action left to him, the only one that was still his choice. God would surely forgive him. Suicide wasn’t totally taboo, there were times and situations when it was expected. To restore honor for one, or when cornered with no other options, or to repent for crushing failure or shame, all were valid and proper reasons to consider suicide. He knew all of this just as he knew that cowards went to the deepest of hells. The trouble was, he wasn’t sure if God would judge him as being in a situation with no honorable options or as merely the coward he felt himself to be.
Then an even wilder idea sunk in. One that terrified him more than facing damnation for disgrace and cowardice, an idea so strange that he half wondered if in his suppressed grief he might have gone mad. He couldn’t strike at his father, that was unthinkable. Nor could he run away because really where would he go? No one would take him in and he couldn’t survive on his own, he knew that much, knew he’d been so completely and fully sheltered that the real world would eat him alive. He couldn’t go back and save his sister, or at the least make the effort and there was no power in his hands to prevent his own future.
That didn’t mean he couldn’t place a thorn in the lion’s paw. Small, minor but still a thorn and even if he pulled it off and was the only one to know he had arranged that small pain it would be something to cherish. His father had directly requested Corena Watchers be captured and brought to him. He’d struck Irend because the woman was missing her pendent. They meant something to his father, something small maybe and on the same level of pleasure he might receive from a fine sweet dessert but it would be some tiny amount of pleasure denied. If he was very lucky, his father would know it was him and he’d kill him in his rage.
The idea was thrilling and he found himself slipping from his bed. His first thought was to call a servant to dress him but he grinned at his own habits and foolishness before he could call out. He may not have much practice but he knew how to tend to himself and he slipped into his robe with far more speed than he ever could manage with servants fussing at him.
He moved quickly and as skillfully as a cat in the darkness. The long travels had earned him that much, he had spent enough hours pacing his fabric prison to know every sharp edge of every chest and ever loose corner on ever rug on the ground. He found the scarf he sought by feel, not caring which it was so long as it was the long wrap style and he quickly secured it around his hair and over part of his face. If he was spotted, his excuse of clearing his head in the night air wouldn’t work if he was modestly covered. Modesty didn’t make him slip a dagger into his sleeve, that was just practicality.
Just because he’d never disobeyed didn’t mean he hadn’t thought about it. Some days, plotting ways to escape his escorting servants and even his cloistered set of rooms were all he had to hold his mind together. The tent had been no different. Almost from the first night he’d considered different ways to slip away unnoticed. Not that he’d ever had the courage to disobey before but just in case he ever wanted to.
He’d never, not once in his wildest of day dreams, believed he’d want to risk so much. It wasn’t a choice of want, he knew it, he had to try this or he really would slip over that final edge into madness. There was nothing left for him he wasn’t afraid to risk. What more could be done to him? Taking his life was no threat and that was the worst situation his mind could create.
There was a wider gap, toward the back of the tent behind a chest, where the space between stakes was a little too wide. It was a tight fit but he already knew he could lift it up from the ground high enough to slip under it. The temptation to slip outside had been sharp the day he’d found the gap but instead he’d sat on the ground and peered out, watching the camp life he wasn’t allowed to take part in.
He dropped to the ground and peered out into the darkness. He saw torches off toward the edges and the moon was dark but he saw no movement. There would be a guard on the edges of their encampment but not so close to his own tent, he knew that, they set the guard the same each time. He dropped to his stomach and nearly froze, nearly gave up and ran back to his bed and forget the craziness of his idea.
It was only remembering the woman’s screams and the shouts of the man and how it had mingled in his mind with the sounds his sister had made that kept his nerve steady. This was his chance to do something and likely the only one he’d ever be given. The ground was hard below him but he slipped out into the open with ease.